NAMPA, Idaho — Researchers in Southwestern Idaho are developing a robotic platform they believe could help specialty crop growers manage their crops and reduce labor costs.
The platform, which researchers are dubbing “IdaBot,” will be a low-cost way of helping farmers control input costs through the use of robotic automation, said Northwest Nazarene University engineering professor Joshua Griffin.
“The end goal is to try and save some money for the grower,” he said. “We’re trying to build a low-cost robot ... that comes in at a cost point where people can use it without having to take out a loan.”
The IdaBot project is funded partly through an $81,000 specialty crop grant provided last year by the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
Farmers spend a lot of money on labor when it comes to spraying, monitoring and harvesting their crops, Griffin said.
“Our thought was anything we can do to automate any of those processes would benefit the grower,” he said.
The scope of this two-year project is to create a simple robot that can navigate an orchard or vineyard autonomously and be used to apply chemicals.
Once they figure that part out, Griffin and project partner Duke Bulanon, another NNU professor, hope to teach the robot to do other things, such as count fruit on the tree or vine and assist pickers.
“This is just a platform that we can put other technologies on top of,” Bulanon said. “Once we teach it to walk, then we can teach it ... to do other stuff.”
“Our first goal is to have this thing drive down a vineyard, turn around and come back and on its way apply chemicals,” Griffin said. “Once we’ve done that, then we want to start trying to demonstrate other specific applications.”
The robot will be tested in commercial operations, including at Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in Caldwell, where manager Michael Williamson said he’s excited about the possibilities.
He said that besides keeping people away from spraying, which is always a good thing, a box could be placed on top of the robot to assist people who are picking fruit. When the box is full, the autonomous robot would take the fruit to a central point and return for the next load.
“You could have a couple of them be runners for you,” he said.
Griffin believes the specialty crop industry is an area ripe for automation.
“There is so much agriculture in Idaho that it just seems like a natural fit to pursue some of this,” he said. “We feel like (that) is a good niche for us.”
The key to the project is to design a platform that the average farmer can afford, said Richie Grindstaff, an undergraduate engineering student who is helping create IdaBot.
“We’re trying to keep this low-cost so farmers can use it,” he said.